Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Easy Virtue

Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott, 2008) Okay, it may be a weak recommendation to say this may be the best performance Jessica Biel has ever given, but she holds her own in a good cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas (as a society woman who has seen far better days) and Colin Firth (the head of the household, who has only returned bodily from WWI), who are quite bent out of their stiff upper lips that their son (Ben Barnes) has married 1) an adventuress, 2) a race-car driver, 3) a widow, and 4) an (gasp!) American—all in the form of a comely Biel.

"What am I to do with this bauble of a woman?" fusses Mrs. Whittaker.  "Hang her?" says her barely-engaged husband.

The Noel Coward play has been filmed once before (by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928, during his silent era...consider that, a silent version of a Noel Coward play) and Elliott's version tries mightily to make it more hip, making Biel's Larita Whittaker more of a liberated woman, rather than just a libertine, and her inability to navigate the iceberg-laden chilly waters at the Whitaker residence (which, at their most hapless, resembles something that might appear in Meet the Parents) puts a strain on her puppy-loveish young marriage.

Try as she might to ingratiate herself into the family, it all turns perfectly horrid, with no help from her cluelessly entitled young husband (who thinks he can have it all, and can't fathom why everybody doesn't just get along).  Fact is, the Whittaker estate isn't so much a home as a castle, protecting itself from the cruelty of the outside world, and only those touched by that cruelty have the grace to rise above, if they can.  Larita gravitates to the unsmiling Mr. Whittaker for advice, his cynicism to keeping up appearances, coinciding with a wish she cannot fulfill for her husband's/his son's sake.

There has to be a better way, if not for the family then for herself.   What else can they do to her

Discover her secrets, maybe.

The two films diverge at this point: Hitchcock's hinges on a portrait done of Larita that colors her husband's death; Elliott's has that portrait, too (amusingly), but comes up with a more modern tragedy for Larita to cover up that wouldn't have "played" in the 20's, when Coward first wrote the play.  It gives the film a depth, and distinguishes Larita from the rest of the family-members, and leads to an inevitable conclusionCoward's way out.

A truffle; a bon-bon; a baubleEasy Virtue has a grand time sending its message on the clash of the classes, filling it with period tunes (and ending with one out of period, but apt), and a cast making the most of Coward's words.  Not one to be dismissed.

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